A New Normal for the American Family: Kids Outside of Marriage

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Young, working-class adults are more receptive to bearing children outside of marriage, but they still want their kids to have two parental figures.

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A 23-year-old unwed mother, Tori is the new normal. As The New York Times recently reported, more than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage, most of which are to women without a college degree. While Tori and her child's father, Aaron, talked about marriage and stumbled into a jewelers at the mall once, they had no immediate plans for engagement. But they did want a child.

Tori refers to motherhood as her calling. While her family wishes that she'd gone to college and "got established" first, Tori, now a home health care provider, doesn't regret her decision to go "from high school to mom." "Honestly, if I had waited, I don't think I would have Aidan," she said. "[He] makes me want to yank my hair out, my house is always a mess, there's food all over my carpet, my couch, his clothes are stained -- and I wouldn't have it any other way."

While such sentiments befuddle many college-educated Americans, we heard them often in our interviews with over 100 mostly white working-class young adults in southwestern Ohio. Many working-class young adults like Tori -- married or not -- view the birth of their children as one of the best things that happened to them. As one young cohabiting woman put it, having kids is "the biggest point in life. More than falling in love, more than your house, more than your money, more than anything is keeping your family alive. Keeping the world going. Like, that's what you're put on this Earth to do."

Most high-school educated Americans report that marriage is either "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them.

The stories and sentiments we heard provide some texture to what we already know from national data. According to the 2010 State of Our Unions report, 61 percent of adolescents who have a mother with a high school education said they would be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant, compared to 76 percent of adolescents whose mother is college-educated -- suggesting that young adults from working-class families are more receptive to bearing children outside of marriage.

But this does not necessarily mean that they reject marriage: Seventy-six percent of high-school educated Americans report that marriage is either "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them. This is in spite of the fact that many of them might have good reasons to be wary of marriage: Forty-three percent of high-school educated Americans say that marriage has not worked out for most people they know.

In our own research, while we heard many working-class young adults express reservations about marriage -- emphasizing the importance of not "rushing" into marriage, but seeing no problem with having kids in the meantime -- they are determined to give their children what so many of them didn't have growing up: a mom and a dad who will always be there, together (married or not).

At least, that was what Tori determined four years ago when she and Aaron found out that they were pregnant. "We were trying, but it just wasn't happening so we just gave up, and then it happened," she told us, as Aidan, now three and wearing a John Deere shirt that reads "Will Trade Sister for a Tractor," stomped around in knee high cowboy boots, killing ants. "I was speechless but I was happy, and ... [Aaron] was excited."

But when Aidan was 18 months old, Aaron left Tori for an 18 year old. Now Aaron doesn't even call on Father's Day.

And while Tori takes offense when people say you need to be married before having children, she adds a caveat: "I think both of the parents needs to be in their life, otherwise you get one that acts like mine.... He acts out bad. Today's a good day, but when we're by ourselves, he will scream, he will kick, he bites, he spits.... He'll wake up in the middle of the night and cry for [his dad], he'll cry himself to sleep for him, or he'll want to call him and he won't answer so he cries. He just doesn't have that male role model in his life, and it is taking its toll on him. He's very angry all the time."

Tori knows people think she's crazy for wanting to get back together with Aaron, but she wants to do it for Aidan's sake, because "Aidan needs him." And it's not just women who believe their children need both parents.

Ryan, 21, and his cohabiting girlfriend, Brittany, separated four months after the birth of their son, Jesse. However, he still tries every other day to make the 30-minute trek to visit him. "I know I can give him good guidance growing up. I'm not saying Brittany couldn't or something like that, but I know I can," he said. "That's my son, you know."

As a kid, Ryan begged his divorced parents to "be together my whole life." He always hoped to give his children the stability he missed -- and still hopes to do so, even leaving open the possibility of reconciliation with Brittany. "That really upsets me more than anything ... he's six months old and I already failed something that I wanted to do," Ryan said. "Really, one of the most important things I wanted to do for him."

According to a summary of research led by W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia, children born to cohabiting parents are more than twice as likely to experience their parents' separation by the age of 12 than those born to married parents. So Americans are right to be concerned about the growing proportion of children born outside of marriage. But any discussion of how to help must start from a position of respect for working-class young adults' desire for children -- and their quest for a permanent love.

Concerned Americans should ask not how they can prevent twentysomething women from bearing children, but how they can support working-class couples' aspirations for children and a love that lasts until death does them part. That's the normal that many working-class young adults want.

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Amber Lapp & David Lapp

Amber and David Lapp, researchers at the Institute for American Values, are the co-investigators behind the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, an inquiry into how working-class young adults in one Ohio town form families.

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